Bells, bulletin that stopped the world
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles this week remembering the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This story originally appeared in a 1993 special Daily Courier section that honored the 30th anniversary of JFK's assassination. It was written by Laura Szepesi, who left the Daily Courier in 1995 and returned as a contributing writer in 2011.
Except for the steady tick, tick, tick of the United Press International news wire, The Daily Courier newsroom was quiet.
It was just past 1 p.m. and the day's deadline was over.
In the pressroom, that metal monster called a press had already roared into action, printing the day's second — and final — edition for Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.
News Editor John Whoric was now planning for what he thought would be a routine Saturday issue.
Reporters Henry Gordon and Lucille McGill were at their desks, comparing notes. Society Editor Margaret Atkinson was pouring over club news, engagements and weddings that had arrived in the day's mail. Sports Editor Jim Kriek was joking — as usual — with fellow staffers, including photographer Ken Bolden.
Suddenly, the UPI machine's monotonous ticking was replaced with the sharp, staccato ring of bells.
That ringing meant something important was coming over the wire.
But that wasn't really unusual in 1963.
“Ever since John Kennedy had been elected, the media had followed Jackie's movements constantly — sort of like they do with Hillary Clinton today (in 1993),” explained Kriek. “So I figured Mrs. Kennedy had done something that day.”
The ringing continued. Six times. Eight. A dozen.
Whoric got up. Strolled over to the wire machine. Ripped off the paper spewing out.
“I asked Whoric, ‘Well, what did Mrs. Kennedy do today?' ” Kriek recalled.
Whoric didn't say anything for a minute. He looked, ashen-faced, at his newsroom colleagues. “It's not funny now,” he said as he handed Kriek the historic UPI dispatch. “You better take a look at this.”
Two words datelined Dallas, Texas: KENNEDY SHOT.
Then, moments later: PRESIDENT SERIOUSLY WOUNDED.
The third bulletin, appearing within minutes, wrote history.
The news staff looked at each other. Silent.
“We've got to do something. Now,” Kriek recalled Whoric saying.
The longtime news editor quickly conferred with composing room foreman Paul Garstecki and printer Bob Swallop, who alerted pressroom foreman Ray “Snuffy” Haggerty to stop the press.
“When John Whoric told me the news, I just felt like quitting for the day and going home,” recalled Swallop, who retired in 1988, after 45 years service.
But there was work to do.
The press screeched to a halt. Swallop and his fellow printers began tearing down the front page.
When it rolled off the press about a half hour later, the new headline read — in letters four inches tall – KENNEDY DIES.
Not since World War II had ended had there been a headline so tall.
Even today (in 1993), Daily Courier employees from 1963 remembered the aftermath of the assassination.
“The UPI machine went crazy. It rang and rang and rang,” related Joe Alesantrino, who worked for The Daily Courier from 1951 until his retirement in the late 1990s.
He and fellow printer Bob Porterfield (in 1963) were the only two staffers still working at The Daily Courier (in 1993).
“There was a lot of excitement that day. It was chaos here,” Porterfield recalled (in 1993).
McGill, who was 71 in 1993, lived in Smock when she was interviewed. “There was a lot of excitement, let me tell you,” said McGill, who retired in the early 1970s.
Kriek remembered the shock and disbelief of Fay-West residents.
“What I remember most is how quiet the city got. Everything came to a screeching stop. City Hall was draped in black. The flags were at half mast,” remembered Kriek, who was 65 in 1993. (The local sportswriter, whose career spanned more than half a century, passed away several years ago.) “I don't remember anything before or since that made this town so silent.”
Kriek admitted that he was a staunch Kennedy supporter; he was waiting for the new president to prove himself.
“We can only speculate on what Kennedy might have accomplished. He was the most charismatic president of my lifetime, and I am sure that he would have had a second administration,” Kriek said.
“History will credit him with being a leader in getting the Peace Corps and Civil Rights movement under way. And, Kennedy will be remembered for putting up the blockade around Cuba when it was discovered that the Russians had missile sites there,” Kriek added. “Of course, he will also be remembered for the Bay of Pigs failure and for sending the first ‘advisers' to Vietnam.”
Kriek said the scandals about JFK's administration that broke in subsequent years have never altered his own opinion about the late president.
“I figured what he did outside his job was his own business. There are always scandals. Look at Watergate,” Kriek said. “Even though I didn't go along with the whole Camelot thing, I do know this: He had the ability to relate to all ages.
“This is the United States of America. We don't kill our leaders. You expect something like that to happen in Third World countries, not here in the USA. Here, if we don't like our leaders, we beat them at the ballot box. We don't kill them.
TUESDAY: Judy (Wrote) Keller not only witnessed history in 1963; after high school graduation, she went on to teach history in the Connellsville Area School District. She later became Connellsville's city treasurer.
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.